Keep calm and count to three

Many children and teens encounter bullying during school—as many as 33 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Aggressive behavior—verbal, physical or even virtual—can escalate quickly if it’s not handled right.

"Many children experience conflict during school, whether it’s bullying or simply dealing with a tense argument," explained Dr. Stella Cruz, MD, a Geisinger pediatrician. "Teaching your kid to defuse situations early can help them deal with the bully and prevent them from bullying others."

While your child may instinctually want to fight back physically or verbally in a tense situation, trying to calm the situation is a good first move to avoid any further escalation.

Here are a few tips your teen can use to defuse a tense situation.

Count to three

In a potentially heated or violent situation, it’s important to keep calm. Even with a clear intention, it’s easy to be provoked and react emotionally instead of rationally.

"If someone is trying to provoke a tense situation, stop, breathe and count to three, or just take a moment," said Dr. Cruz. "This can help you quickly refocus and react rationally."

Understand body language’s role

Even if you’re not saying what you’re thinking, your body language probably is.

In tense situations, body language is important. Bullies try to get reactions out of their victims, so if your teen looks nervous, cries, gets angry or shows other signs of sadness, the bully will feel like they’ve won.

Most bullies feed on reaction; if confronted, the best action is to just walk away.

"Stand up straight and tall, keeping eye contact with the bully. Make it clear that you’re maintaining control of the situation and that they aren’t intimidating you. Never resort to physical violence. This often escalates the problem," said Dr. Cruz.

Practice being assertive

During an argument or while facing aggressive behavior, it can be difficult to find the right words. Short phrases like, "That’s not funny," "Leave me alone," or "Please cut it out" are good because they aren’t intended to escalate the tension.

Practicing these phrases in front of a mirror or in role play can prepare your teen for an encounter.

Don’t ignore the issue

A tense situation won’t go away just by ignoring it. If a confrontation starts, your teen needs to nip the issue in the bud.

One-time issues can be solved by using an assertive phrase and walking away. Persistent issues need to be addressed; importantly, ignoring a bully can make things worse.

Your teen should handle the issue as much as possible but realize when it gets too big for them. This is especially true about physical threats. Telling an adult isn’t "snitching"—especially if the situation is out of hand.

The same goes for other people. If you see another person being bullied, help them—don’t ignore them. Bullies usually act alone, so by showing support with multiple people, the bully may stop.

"Creating tools for your child to feel more confident and understand how to react in a situation can help them deal with their own bullies and step in if they see someone else dealing with aggressive behavior.

It’s true that people bully you because they are insecure and they need to demean others to feel better about themselves. Just be cool and stay calm when bullied," explained Dr. Cruz.

Stella Cruz, MD, is a pediatrician at Geisinger Dallas. To schedule an appointment for your child with Dr. Cruz or another Geisinger pediatrician, please call 1-800-275-6401 or visit Geisinger.org.

Tense situation